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'JFK Jr.: The Final Year' review: Intelligent, moving portrait

John F. Kennedy Jr., with his wife, Carolyn

John F. Kennedy Jr., with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, is the subject of "JFK Jr.: The Final Year" on A&E. Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/MITCH JACOBSON

DOCUMENTARY “JFK Jr: The Final Year”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on A&E

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Steven Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and resident historian for History, taught Kennedy at Brown, and later became a friend. This “Biography” special — part personal recollection, and also companion to Gillon’s new book, “America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr.” — focuses mainly on 1998-99, when George magazine was facing an uncertain future, and its founding editor was thinking about his next move. Gillon has a number of interviews here, including with former President Bill Clinton, and a trove of footage, some of it striking: It opens with Kennedy furiously confronting a photographer who has approached his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, on a beach.

MY SAY There have been two types of Kennedy TV biographies through the years — the slavish devotional, or the dark-side-of-Camelot — and those on JFK Jr. have often sliced the same way. He was either the callow, reckless party boy or the once and future king. Neither tell a human story but a bite-size tabloid one. If at all possible, they’re usually even worse than bad: They’re predictable.

Gillon must have known what he was up against, especially on the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, which offers the perfect opportunity for even more hyperbole and nonsense. Blessedly, he takes a different approach. “The great struggle of [Kennedy’s] life,” he says, “was to understand who he was separate from the overwhelming expectations everyone had for him.” Obviously Kennedy died before he could come to that understanding, while Gillon is forced to conclude that the struggle itself ultimately defined him. (Kennedy was killed when the private plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Martha’s Vineyard on July 16, 1999. The crash also killed his wife and her sister.)

Because this special picks up in the last year of Kennedy’s life, that conclusion seems just about right: Kennedy’s marriage was in trouble, his magazine near collapse and his future uncertain. He appeared ready to challenge incumbent George Pataki in a run for governor of New York but was ambivalent about politics. Kennedy wasn’t Hamlet, but he was apparently Hamlet-like.

Gillon relies on the familiar set of friends to tell this story, including Gary Ginsburg — a New York media power broker and adviser to Rupert Murdoch — and Kennedy’s assistant, RoseMarie Terenzio. And while it might seem inauspicious to lean so heavily on a former “Housewife of New York,” Carole Radziwill proves invaluable here, too.

In fact, she’s indispensable. In the last year of his life, Kennedy’s closest friend, and first cousin, Anthony Radziwill — son of Jackie’s sister Lee and Carole’s husband — was dying from sarcoma. Radziwill’s skeletal image haunts every frame of this portrait even when he’s not in the frame. There’s a shot of him on a beach, scars running up and down his side and back. Kennedy is just off to the side, witness to one more personal tragedy.

Carole Radziwill recalls a particularly low moment in this final year, when Kennedy comes straight to the hospital from some black-tie affair for George. Anthony Radziwill is dying, and his friend comes to his bedside where he sings some nursery song they both remember from a shared childhood. Radziwill would die in mid-August 1999, not quite a month after Kennedy’s death.

“The Final Year” is a heartbreaker, and couldn’t be otherwise, but what’s so good about this is that it sets Kennedy within the context of his own life — his own fears and worries, his dreams and self-delusions. It’s that long-awaited human portrait, and of necessity an unfinished one, but it’s the portrait Kennedy deserves.

BOTTOM LINE Intelligent, well-researched, moving.

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